Did U.S. Bomb Sudan in Error?

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That damned factory in the Sudan keeps coming back to haunt the White House. The New York Times on Wednesday carried a detailed account of how the Clinton administration decided to bomb the Al Shifa chemical plant in 1998 despite warnings by senior intelligence and security personnel that there was insufficient evidence linking it to either Osama Bin Laden or the manufacture of chemical weapons. Under pressure from international protest and media inquiries, administration sources have backpedaled substantially on both claims since the August 1998 strike, which, together with a similar raid on Bin Laden's Afghanistan camps, was launched in retaliation for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But the Times report also carries allegations from U.S. officials that Secretary of State Albright encouraged State Department intelligence analysts "to kill a report being drafted that said the bombing was not justified."

According to the sources cited in the report, President Clinton chose to follow the recommendation of his civilian advisers over the reservations expressed by the military and the CIA over bombing the Sudan plant. "There was certainly a sense that the administration needed to make some kind of gesture in response to the embassy bombings, to be seen to be doing something," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "They were experimenting with cruise missiles as a low-risk way of dealing with these issues, but the Sudan strike showed how that can backfire. We also have to ask whether by attacking Bin Laden ineffectively, we've actually boosted his importance." To be sure, painstaking police and intelligence work by U.S. agencies and their foreign allies has netted Bin Laden operatives all over the world over the past year, and may have hurt the terrorist financier a lot more than the headline-grabbing missile strikes, which did little material damage but gave Bin Laden just the sort of scary celebrity status so craved by terrorists.